Unpredictable Predictables

“It was impressive to see an enormous mushroom cloud, with the immense force of the volcano, and to see the ashes. At that point, there was a lot of panic, lots of chaos, traffic jams, people going to supermarkets, everyone looking for water, trying to take out money from the ATMs.” – Ensenada resident, witnessing Calbuco eruption

On Wednesday, more than 4,400 people were evacuated after the Calbuco volcano erupted in Chile for the first time in over 40 years. And then it erupted again, blanketing the surrounding area in nearly 2 feet of ash, as red-hot rocks were hurled into the night and volcanic lightning lit up the sky. Though Calbuco was considered one of the most dangerous of Chile’s 90 active volcanoes, how should those who live in its shadow heed a warning four decades old?

Not that there’s much we can really do about volcanoes, since volcanoes have the power to change the world as we know it, as the Economist writes in How Volcanoes Change the Climate. The sulphur dioxide the volcano releases at eruption gets into the atmosphere and starts running amuck, combining with other particles to warm the stratosphere and cool the surface of the earth. Two hundred years ago, when the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted, the subsequent cooling caused the “hiatus of the Indian monsoon, drought in southern Africa and widespread crop failures in Europe, where it was known as the year without a summer.”

Granted, these are all massive, macro trends that we can’t predict. And, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it doesn’t necessarily matter that we can’t predict it, because we humans are terrible at predicting in the first place, often relying too heavily on our belief in evidence. We fail to predict the ‘Black Swan’, an “event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.”

Take, for example, the disaster that resulted in Fukushima, or Japan’s Black Swan: “an earthquake larger than seismologists thought could happen in that part of the country, leading to a tsunami too big for the seawalls, and now a nuclear crisis that wasn’t supposed to be possible.”

David Wolman argues in The Aftershocks that our inability to understand these types of odds is because if you “stretch that low probability over time — which is how earthquake risk is estimated — and confusion with low probabilities morphs into complete incomprehension. If you live in an earthquake-prone place for 10,000 days, the cumulative probability gets higher and higher, approaching 1 in 1. Our minds, unfortunately, have a hard time keeping up.” In other words, “where a career scientist hears the word improbable and knows that rare events do occur, a non-scientist hears improbable as shorthand for ain’t gonna happen.

In order to prepare ourselves for these kinds of events, Richard Aster writes that “we will have to increasingly expect the unexpected, not just in the context of the familiar randomness of seismicity itself but also in seismicity’s increasingly unpredictable social effects.” Translation: it’s not just the size of the quake we have to consider, it’s the power plants we’re building that can’t fail behind seawalls that can’t be breached. Or, as 1914 realized, even unsinkable ships can be sunk.
The “potential for future disasters is compounded by the inexorable concentration and buildup of populations and infrastructure in cities, which puts vastly increased numbers of people at peril and can exacerbate all of the aforementioned factors.” Translation: oof.

Compounding interest on a 10-year index fund is one thing. Compounding the likelihood and scale of the sort of disaster with global impact is entirely different. So if you didn’t feel bad enough about your ability to make those predictions before, then you may not want to read how Animals Can Predict Earthquakes. The article has this terrific solution to our earthquake sensing problem: “Since animals are already in place in various parts of the world, they would make great complements to existing monitoring systems.”

For those of us living in Los Angeles, there is a perennial fear of The Big One hitting, so hearing that the Big One could trigger a series of large earthquakes called a “super cycle” is pure terror. Before you decide to flee for the more stable coast (and remember – Black Swans – increasingly expect the unexpected!), know that just a few hundred smartphones could catch earthquakes early – so there’s hope! If all of those smartphones are busy posting status updates about “FELT THE EARTHQUAKE!!!” then all bets are off.

All this technology – from hordes of cell phones to hordes of beasts – is in an attempt to predict the earthquakes that the earth is throwing at us in unpredictable waves. What if we had the ability to prevent those earthquakes entirely? The New Yorker’s Weather Underground details the arrival and discovery of man-made earthquakes in Oklahoma as a result of hydraulic fracking.

In 2008, “Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year.

In “2014 [when] there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California.”

And now, in 2015, after years of ignoring the connection, this: Oklahoma admits that the oil and gas industry is responsible for the dramatic rise in earthquakes. Even though the state’s government recognizes the role of drilling in earthquakes they aren’t issuing a moratorium.

As Donald Rumsfeld once said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult one.”

What you don’t know, can’t hurt you. What you don’t do anything about, can.

So. Oklahoma acknowledges that fracking turns the unknown known – the effects of blasting water into the earth, for example – into a known known – that it causes earthquakes.

With so many known unknowns – volcanoes! the Big Ones! tidal waves! – beyond our control, why not take a minute, or a month, or a year, to figure out what kinds of impacts these things we’re doing might have decades down the line? Of course, if we did that, and allow ourselves to expect the unexpected, we’d be acting like, in Rumsfeldian terms, a real bunch of unpredictable predictables.

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Down and Drought in California

“As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since recordkeeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.” – Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I’m speaking in generalities here, but the scientists at NASA are pretty smart. They put robots on Mars, they make pens that writes in zero gravity, and now they’re telling us that California has one year of water left (in our reservoirs). The headline is alarming, but not, for those of us living in California now, all that new. The drought – and its accompanying pictures – have been in and out of the front pages for the last several years, and attention-grabbing headlines are failing to turn us to action.

Hoping to spur us to change, Governor Jerry Brown announced this week that California is imposing its first mandatory restrictions to deal with the drought. Given that our rainy season (read: that weekend it was overcast and we didn’t dare venture outside) has given way to record heatwaves (the Los Angeles Marathon had cooling buses along the route in March) and a record-low snowpack in the mountains, we are now set up a long dry season.

While water restrictions and cutbacks will affect governments and private companies alike, not everyone is despairing. Lemor Abrams writes that whitewater rafting companies expect business to boom even in California’s drought because of a “new federal license where utility companies are allowed to open up the dams at the top,” creating more “raftable” rapids. If that doesn’t slake your entrepreneurial thirst, perhaps consider that this barber-turned-entrepreneur is cashing in on the California drought by painting dead grass green.

It’s not just individuals who are taking the drought into their own hands: small cities and local governments like Santa Monica and Long Beach are seeking water independence, and hoping to achieve it by 2020. Their efforts include cleaning up their groundwater supply and rewarding individual homes for collecting and conserving rainwater.

That communal effort can be scaled up as we design new buildings – and retrofit old ones – so that our cities can soak up and store water for future use. Adele Peters describes that and four other actionable plans in 5 Things California Can Do to Survive a Mega-Drought. The silver lining to a mega-drought (one lasting two decades or longer) is that we will still get regular rain – we just have to be smarter about capturing it. We can also take the water readily available to us as seawater and desalinate it, but that is a traditionally energy-intensive process.

Michael Webber writes about the interconnectedness of energy, water and food in A Puzzle for the Planet (paywall). As he says it, “about 80 percent of the water we consume is for agriculture – our food. Nearly 13 percent of energy production is used to fetch, clean, deliver, heat, chill and dispose of our water” and we “compound the problems with policy, oversight and funding decisions made by separate agencies.” Rather than treating the drought as a problem merely about a lack of water, and thinking of a solution that solves just that problem, we must treat it in the context of our energy and food needs. Given California’s status as one of the produce capitals of the world, that mindset is especially valuable.

Fortunately, there are companies working now to address multiple points in that triangle. A new project off the coast of Australia may soon make wave power a reality, with the tantalizing byproduct of desalinated water to boot. Carnegie Wave Energy has created a series of buoys that generate energy just under the surface of the ocean, which is especially interesting considering that unlike most sources of renewable energy, there aren’t marked lulls in production (like solar and wind power), and these buoys wouldn’t be affected by storms.

Though the practicality of renewable energy is debatable, there is proof in the pudding: Costa Rica is now running completely on renewable energy. Their oil-independence is due in part to heavy rainfalls, but they aren’t resting on their well-deserved laurels. With the understanding that a drought of any length would force them back to relying on more finite sources of energy, the Costa Rican government, along with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and European Investment Bank, has committed nearly $1 billion to a geothermal project near the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The country continues to be proactive in seeking out solutions to a future where energy is in question.

In California, we have been slow to react to the drought. After all, the only thing better than long showers are great lawns and fresh almonds, right? With Governor Brown’s announcement, and the move from the lackadaisical language of past years to a mandatory reduction of water use, we are taking steps in a new direction. Let us treat the drought not as a temporary problem to be lawn-painted over but as a substantial obstacle to our future that must be overcome by action and ingenuity.

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